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Authors: Katharine McMahon

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Historical

The Rose of Sebastopol (51 page)

BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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We hardly spoke at all during the first few miles. My last experience on horseback, in company with Lady Mendlesham-Connors, had ended so disastrously that all my concentration was required to ensure that I stayed in the saddle and even when I did risk a few words I was instantly crushed. Having witnessed the difficulty with which Max mounted his horse I said: “It cannot be safe for you to be in the Crimea with such a wound. What good will you be on the battlefield?”
“More use than the average general, Miss Lingwood. More use than a fit man, I’d say. Better to throw damaged goods into the fray than waste our few remaining able-bodied men.”
My next attempt was equally unsuccessful. “Did you hear me tell you in the hospital that your stepmother is to marry again?”
“I have no interest in the antics of that woman.”
“And I understand that Horatio is also engaged to be married. Do you know his bride?”
“One of the Stokes-Lacey girls. He chose the richest family in the county. Money but no heart. They deserve each other.”
I gave up. Gloomy and stiff-legged, Max bore no resemblance at all to the reckless officer who had defied Henry by galloping pell-mell across the Crimean plain in a steeplechase. Despite an increasing sense of isolation I kept my head up as we traveled through the vast encampment of tents and huts where the men were engaged in time-wasting activities such as rifle cleaning or slow marching. To my unpracticed eyes all seemed much as usual but from time to time Max glanced about to check he was not overheard and exchanged a surreptitious word with a fellow officer. When we reached the French camp he roused himself to hurl good-natured insults across a campfire but refused offers of coffee. I was introduced as
“ma cousine, une vivandière...”
which did nothing to quell lascivious winks and smiles.
The further we rode, the more miserable I felt. I had been so busy last night preparing for the practicalities of this ride that its object had not fully dawned on me. Now I suspected that Max so dreaded what he might find in the cave that he couldn’t bear even to articulate his fears. If he truly believed that the outcome of our journey would be an appalling confirmation and an end to hope, no wonder he was hunched into himself, always alert but never animated, paying me such little attention that at times I wondered whether he’d notice if I turned tail and rode back to Nora. In the end I grew too frightened to think coherently. Though I tried to convince myself that it was impossible to imagine Henry doing Rosa—or anyone else—deliberate harm, when I thought of his behavior in Narni the only certainty seemed to be that I didn’t know what he was capable of at all.
When we came under the Sapoun Hills the landscape changed to craggier countryside, where outlying allied pickets stood in their shirt-sleeves under makeshift awnings. The Turkish outposts were characterized by rolled-up prayer mats and a reek of tobacco from the distinctive narrow cigars smoked by the soldiers. Now that I no longer doubted my ability to stay on Solomon’s broad back I had become alert to the danger of Russian sharp-shooters. Shell and rocket fire hammered from the bastions and after I’d lived for over two months at the edge of a tented community of thousands of men it was very strange to be riding into near-uninhabited territory. Gradually the road became emptier and the babble of voices, though not the crack of shell-fire, died away altogether. We passed into a once-fertile valley, where ruined cottages stood amidst desolate gardens, every last item of furniture stripped away and the vegetable plots a mass of weeds. In places the track was littered with the detritus of passing armies, a broken boot, a bent cart wheel, the carcass of a mule picked bare.
Then the hills became wilder still, scattered with rocks and scraggy brushwood, divided by roughly quarried ravines where the silence was broken by crows screeching overhead and the spasmodic rattle of artillery. At a place where the path divided Max dismounted, took a flask from his saddlebag, and propped himself on a ruined wall. The exertion of the ride had made his face ashen although he remained tense and vigilant.
He unscrewed the top, watched as I swallowed warm, metallic water, and then drank from the same flask. “There’s not much point in going further.” His voice was dull and his eyes empty of any spark. “If we carried on we’d eventually reach the road to Sebastopol. High up this other path is where your Thewell lived like a hermit in the weeks before he was sent home. It’s just a cave in the side of a hill—and dangerous, we’d be easy targets.”
“Please don’t talk about him like that,
your
Thewell.”
“I beg your pardon, Miss Lingwood.”
“He is not
my
Thewell. It is cruel of you to refer to him as such, as I think you must realize.”
I tried to look calmly upwards as if the prospect of being picked off by a Russian gunman was a hazard I ran into so frequently that it meant nothing to me anymore. The cave, little more than a black fingernail in the rock, was far up on the hillside above an apparently precipitous drop. “But how did he survive?” I whispered.
“His patients, those who made it this far, brought him food and fuel in return for advice but it can’t have been comfortable. I remember that in the winter the wind from the sea funnels like a dervish through these valleys.”
“Why would he choose to come here, of all places?”
“He may have had a particularly strong feeling for Inkerman. I think we all have, those of us who fought here.”
“He never mentioned Inkerman in his letters.”
“Well, he wouldn’t. Most of us prefer to draw a veil. But look around you.” He pointed to a fragment of white in the grass near my foot. Stone? No, bone, or bones, a finger picked bare, and now I looked closer I saw that it was attached to a hand that had pressed up through the soil as if its owner had tried to scratch his way out. And then I noticed a couple of rusty buttons in the grass and a shred of cloth, a bullet, a bit of metal, another bone. The more I looked, the more I realized that the ground was littered with the half-buried debris of battle.
“However carefully you tread here, you walk on dead men’s faces,” said Max.
I listened to a breeze rattle through dry grasses, a dribble of falling scree. In the Tchernaya the soldiers had fanned out over acres of open land and hurtled into the valley, leaping over their fallen comrades. Here they would have been bundled together, no racing for dear life from the pursuing enemy.
“Inkerman was fought in a fog and nobody knew where the next attack would come from. It was said that not even the Russian general had a map of the terrain though the enemy, in a rare fit of competence, crept up on us in the dark and some men never had time to wake up before they found themselves in hand-to-hand combat with a Cossack. We were mad with fear and confusion—couldn’t line ourselves up in formation, didn’t have a strategy. Shocking mistakes were made.
“I caught sight of your Thewell once or twice during that battle of Inkerman, though at the time I didn’t know who he was. Doctors don’t tend to put themselves in the firing line but he never hung back, I’ll give him that. Thewell was upon a man the instant he was shot down, staunching the wound and giving him water. It’s a miracle he survived.
“And later, when I knew him better, he told me about mortally wounded soldiers he came across who’d have survived perfectly well except that retreating Russians had gone by and stabbed them in the face or stomach as they lay pleading for water. Those needless Russian bayonet wounds obsessed him. The trouble with your...Thewell was that he thought of war as a kind of sport that unfortunately resulted in casualties, like rugby. It’s acceptable for a man to have his neck broken in a scrum but not for the opposing team to trample on him afterwards.”
“You speak of him scathingly, as if he were an amateur.”
“We all behave like amateurs. We fight this war as if every move we make is disconnected from the next. After Inkerman a kind of horror filled the camps. We realized that there was no taking Sebastopol that side of winter because we had allowed the Russians far too long to fortify their positions. And we couldn’t go home because there was too much pride at stake and too many men had been lost for no gain. The weather turned bitterly cold and a week or so later the hurricane blew away our tents and sank our supply ships. The men’s clothes got wet and couldn’t be dried out. After Inkerman Thewell never really settled to work at the hospital because all he could think about was the men dying of cold in the trenches. Which is how he came to be working in the front-line, and met Rosa.”
“He felt responsible for what was happening. He thought he could trust the military. He didn’t understand.”
“Then he shouldn’t have got involved.”
“Well, I shall certainly go up to the cave. Just to be where they were. You can wait here if you like.”
He staggered to his feet and we led the horses along a path that ran behind the ruins of a little church, then zigzagged steeply up the side of the hill. At the church we paused and peered into the gloom; a few broken tiles on the floor, the remains of a wall painting, elliptical-eyed saints with round haloes and stiff robes, but otherwise a ruin denuded of anything that could be ripped away, with pockmarks in the walls, stains on the stone floor, and a torn scrap of canvas blown into a corner.
Max stood in the doorway supported by his right arm. “I like this chapel, don’t you, Miss Lingwood? It makes me feel just a little bit more stable, even though I know some poor bastards will have crawled here to die during the battle. But I laugh to think of all those ladies back home worshipping in our churches the same God as the people of Sebastopol. Whose prayers will he answer, do you think, given that he’ll obviously have to choose to keep one lot happy over the other?”
I didn’t respond for fear of his rage and mockery. As it was, I had to step hastily back to let him by and even then his arm brushed mine as he lurched suddenly on his wounded leg. After that I let him get well ahead before I followed him. His hostility was relentless and when he touched me so casually I ached because of his indifference.
Although the sky was now full of clouds it was very hot on the path, and despite Nora’s warning, a pinprick of headache had begun in my forehead. My only comfort was in Solomon, who kept so close that his nose nudged my upper arm and whose ambling gait suggested that this little stroll was nothing to him after the rigors of battle. Eventually, after another sharp twist we reached a small plateau backed by the cave and fronted by a low wall of rock. Above our heads the sun was a pale disc behind a thick layer of yellowish haze but the heat was intense.
Henry’s cave was head-high and quite wide, but ran back only a dozen or so feet into the rock. I stood at the entrance and put my hand on warm stone. I expected to be moved at reaching a place of such significance but I felt nothing. Max led the horses inside where the heat was marginally less oppressive, the air reeked of damp minerals and animal droppings, and the ground was stained by fire. As a dwelling place the cave’s only redeeming features were that the rock wall provided some concealment, and there was a sweeping view to a bridge over the Tchernaya, the ruined village of Inkerman, and on the other side of the valley another rocky hillside. The river broadened as it meandered to right and left, and disappeared behind the spur of a hill on its way to the sea. There was no-one in sight except, in the far distance, a squat figure herding a dozen or so goats and when there was a pause in the barrage of artillery fire I heard a faint jangle of bells.
I scraped my toe through the embers in the cave floor and scanned the walls for clues that Henry and Rosa had been here but found only a bit of rubbish, charred tins, and a broken bottle. At the back of the cave the floor met the roof unevenly, leaving a narrow slit. Cautiously I inserted my hand. Nothing. I again searched my heart for a flutter of excitement or anguish, because here I was, in the very spot where Henry had spent his last weeks in the Crimea, but I only felt numb. He seemed so far from me now that I could scarcely summon an image of him except for a fleeting glimpse of his damp hair and the fumbling of his hot hand in the little room at Narni.
Max pointed to the scrubby hillside opposite. “On the far side of that hill is Sebastopol. A road runs beside the river and along the estuary. The French are encamped over there but the Russians will be watching all the time. When he came here Thewell certainly brought himself to the extreme edge of the war.”
“So what is it you are looking for, Max? You think Rosa died here, don’t you?”
“I think Thewell was beyond reason.”
“He was a doctor.”
“He was mad.”
“You’re very cruel. He was ill.”
The bleakness of his eye and the rigidity of his wounded body were formidable. “Mariella. Are you so blind that you can’t see what was going on? Didn’t you realize, all that time in London he was utterly obsessed by her? Once he’d met up with her here, he wouldn’t leave her alone. He came up to the camp night after night, hammered on her door and shouted her name. She told him that she didn’t love him but he wouldn’t listen. In the end I dragged him away to my hut, where he sat on my bed and wept like a child. He said that Rosa was passionately in love with him, that she had pursued him from the moment he met her in your drawing room, and driven him insane with her persistence ever since. Wherever he went in London there she was: in his hospital, his new house, some public lecture he gave. He even came to the Crimea in the hope of forgetting her, but still she followed him.”
“Perhaps that was secretly why she wanted to come.”
“You sound like Thewell. Nothing would convince him that he was the last person in the world Rosa could love. There he was, huddled in his greatcoat, his fists clenched on his knees, and his face contorted with tears, repeating over and over again: She loves me, she loves me.”
“Why are you so sure she didn’t love him?” Each time the word
love
passed between us its resonance struck me afresh, like a blow to the breast.
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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